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Scott Cumming: Dead Man's Land

ym_94_deadmansland_kduncan.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan 2022

Dead Man’s Land

By Scott Cumming

No man’s land. Ironic name since it was awash with bodies frozen in varying states of decay as far as the eye could see. Faces etched in horror as their short lives ended in hellacious pain. The lucky ones died instantly. The unlucky cut down and left to fester. Their screams keeping us up at night.

 There were those who weren’t shot, but twisted a knee or an ankle losing their footing standing on a rotten corpse buried in debris. If they could crawl back, they could be saved. There were the ones who lost their bearings and made it to the wrong trench. Their ends brutal.

 Christmas Day the first time we emerged from the trench without coming under fire. Everybody sceptical before shouts of ceasefire resounded. Felt like breathing for the first time. The cold air fresh for once.

 The frozen dead produced no stink, the living huddled together fetidly struggling for warmth. Hygiene deteriorating. Psyches frayed and split.

 The sight of officers from both sides chatting amiably, bizarre and maddening. Wasn’t the case all along the line. We could hear the sound of gunfire emanating from miles down the front.

 Us grunts were left to retrieve the dead and dying. They exchanged gifts while we hunted through pockets of corpses for a morsel or robbed them of anything to try and keep warm. Anything of better quality than we had.

 We looked enviously at the German bodies. Better equipped. Better boots. Better coats. Better weapons.

 The officers cavorted smiling for a photograph. Fuck knows where a camera came from. Meanwhile, men clear the dead from the shot muttering under their breaths in English or German.

 Cleared the field of our mates while they pretended to be a little long-lost group of cousins. My eyes heavy with hate, I couldn’t help but let my gaze linger into a stare.

 There was a bloke I didn’t know softly singing Amazing Grace to himself. Collins, I’d soon find out. He was in need of the song himself by March.

 As if we weren’t sullen enough; a fucking football was produced. Soldiers on both sides attracted to the ball like flies to shite. Didn’t matter what they’d been doing. This exodus prompted an idea to strike.

 I wanted German gear. I wanted to feel warmer, more protected against the elements. I wanted a possible way out if things got really bad for us.

 Worthing could speak a decent amount of German. His grandparents travelled over from Prussia to live in Wales for reasons unknown. He’d concealed it upon signing up. Wanted to serve on the front. No value in translating messages and documents and leaving the fight to others in his opinion.

 Saw him across no man’s land. Much like those of us who viewed what was going on with cynicism, he stood hands on hips, scorn radiating from his eyes. I dumped the corpse I’d been dragging and approached.

 “Worthing. You see this stuff they have. I’m wondering if they have stuff in better nick down there.”

 “You askin’ me to have a look?”

 “Well, figured you can speak the language, if you get caught.”

 “Better than freezin’ to death or watching this pish,” he said nodding towards what had become the field of play.

 We looked over at the “pitch” as the players half-heartedly competed for the ball. Their unwieldy boots and the scorched, scarred ground stopping it from being a worthy spectacle.

 Explained my idea to Worthing. We needed to move further along from the match and find a German uniform for him. Necessary disguise along with his knowledge of the language.

 We could’ve just robbed the dead for goods, but I wanted more than the lint and crumbs the icicles contained.

 Can’t say it was a well thought out plan. Case of seizing an opportunity to improve our lives, even marginally. Could have been enough to save us.

 Finding a dead German in a field of them wasn’t difficult, but finding a suitable ruin to change behind was. Worthing changed into the German gear quickly. I kept glancing over the makeshift parapet to ensure the game hadn’t broken up.

 I was nervous and Worthing must have felt worse. Questioned my motives between glances. The football always convinced me. Those hypocrites didn’t speak for me and they sure as hell weren’t going to look out for me. A single asset among millions.

 Dead or alive, I’d be shipped in and out as required. A replaceable face. Ten fingers and ten toes to manipulate and send to get maimed or killed.

 I’m no patriot, so you may ask why I was even there. Better to come voluntarily than be dragged kicking and screaming to death. I’m wasn’t afraid to die, just the sights on the journey to my inevitable destination that left my knees knocking even when it wasn’t the depth of winter.

 No idea how many krauts were in the trench. Blindly looking to steal another poor man’s riches. Couldn’t stop looking for anybody approaching. Found another dead Brit to take care of. Looking over the dead, watching out for the living.

 Worthing scampered between bodies and bullets into the enemy trench. I busied myself rifling through the pockets of dead men. Kept watching. The hoots and cheers from the football made me angry knowing we’d be back to shooting at each other tomorrow.

 War on Christmas Day didn’t seem so bad when you remember King Herod had his minions killing baby boys on the first one. Mrs. Smith’s and Mrs. Jones’ boys weren’t worth as much as that now, were they?

 The not knowing was hardest. Waiting for Worthing to re-emerge. The prospect of goods we could sell and use kept me from turning grim.

 Water ran from my eyes as the wind hit. A constant barrage in my face. Watching the lines, watching the game, watching the trench simultaneously. Barely felt like I was blinking.

 Movement at the lip of the trench. Somebody hoisted their body up slowly. Struggled to make it. Not using their hands to grab hold. Something not right. That’s when with one more heave, Worthing’s face popped from beneath the hip of the soldier he was propping onto the field of death.

 Red in the face. Eyes looking, but not seeing. I wanted to speak. Ask him what the bleeding hell was going on, but I didn’t dare.

 His eyes focused, pleading for help. I couldn’t. Couldn’t be seen together in different uniforms messing about with a corpse.

 Worthing looked weakened by whatever he’d experienced. A trickle of blood ran along his temple. He dragged this new corpse into a pile of German bodies. Looked to sit down and recover then thought better of it.

 Pulled the pile apart making space for the newest member to the army of the dead. I was close to frantic making sure nobody was coming. Everyone still wrapped up in the football match. Hopefully a bit longer yet before they dispersed.

 Whoever Worthing killed found himself buried amongst his compatriots to be frozen once more into a clump of death. As he pulled the bodies back, we heard a groan from the bottom. It kept up. Worthing ignored it and kept on stacking the dead.

 We looked around as Worthing made his way back to the trench. I let out a cough when he was about to climb over, a German soldier approaching.

 The soldier and Worthing conversed in German. I was left with no comprehension as to what was going on, doing my damnedest not to look over in case the German soldier caught wind of me paying attention.

 On conclusion of their discussion, they made for the makeshift football pitch. I followed at a distance, curious as to the next turn this might take. Worthing slapped hands with the German soldier in goals and took over from him.

 I’d no idea if Worthing had ever played football, let alone if he was a competent goalkeeper. He was quiet to begin with as the ball bounced about the “midfield”. Feisty challenges going in from both sides now. The peaceful game taking off with the tensions coming out in the players.

 A German soldier looked for a pass before he stumbled on something on the playing field. Might’ve been a bullet, might’ve been a severed thumb. Either way, he relinquished the ball to the oncoming British soldier, who I recognised as Murray. Murray bared down on the “goal”. Worthing charged out to meet him.

 I’d never know if the change in Murray’s eyes was due to recognition or the velocity with which Worthing was upon him. Worthing lashed the ball away and collided shoulder first into the face of Murray.

 Both lay on ground groaning for a time. Worthing dragged himself up and sat away from everyone. Murray was tended to and carried back to our side.

 The match ended as randomly as it had begun. Worthing and I stared at one another across the dispersing armies. He looked dejected. Underneath his eyes the colour of fresh concrete. A grey that might never go away. I worried for him, but knew there was no turning back. Point of no return had been reached.

 His actions sealed his fate. I’d never know why he rushed Murray, but the look on Murray’s face said he knew it was Worthing.

 A couple of German soldiers went to Worthing and they spoke. I was too far to hear even though I wouldn’t have understood the words, the tone would’ve been clear.

 They pulled him to his feet and solemnly patted his back. One put an arm around his shoulder and they headed for the German trench.

 I wanted Worthing to look back one last time. I needed to apologise with my eyes. He did not look back.

 I don’t know, for sure, what happened to him from that moment. All I can say is that there was the ringing of one solitary bullet on our section of the front that Christmas night. 


Scott Cumming unsuspectingly went to see Garden State wearing his Shins tee. He has been published at The Daily Drunk, Punk Noir Magazine, Versification, Mystery Tribune, and Shotgun Honey. His poem, “Blood on Snow,” was voted the best of Outcast Press Poetry Things We Carry issue and nominated for a Pushcart. His collection, A Chapbook About Nothing, was released in December as part of Close to the Bone's First Cut series.

Twitter: @tummidge Website: https://scottcummingwriter.wordpress.com/

 

Kevin D. Duncan was born 1958 in Alton, Illinois where he still resides. He has degrees in Political Science, Classics, and Art & Design. He has been freelancing illustration and cartoons for over 25 years. He has done editorial cartoons and editorial illustration for local and regional newspapers, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His award-winning work has appeared in numerous small press zines, e-zines, and he has illustrated a few books. 

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2022